By Mike Sokol
Last year I saw a post online about the reason that Veterans Day is always observed in November, specifically the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Now, I was never a fan of history class in high school, especially American History. That’s possibly due to the fact that my dad was an American History teacher and I was getting a D in that one class (yes, I was getting A+ grades in physics and chemistry, so not to worry). Somewhere in my past I probably learned why 11/11 at 11 a.m. was a thing, but must have forgotten it.
But when I read this post about Veterans Day, a lot of my school and family memories came flooding back. You see, I don’t believe we ever forget anything important, we just bury that information somewhere in the deep recesses of our minds.
A little more research came up with this definition: “This holiday marks the anniversary of the 1918 signing of the Armistice, which took place in a railway carriage, between the Allies and Germany. This event marked the end of fighting on the Western Front in the First World War.”
And then I remembered learning that fact some 50 years ago. And soon I was thinking about the importance of this date to my own family history, as well as many of my colleagues and current family members who served and continue to serve in military conflicts around the world.
Grandpa Sokol in WWI trenches
I’ll start with my Grandpa Sokol, who fought in WWI with the Austro-Hungarian army. In his broken English he would recount to us kids (I was probably 6 years old at the time) that he was originally in the cavalry, but after he lost his horse they made him a heavy machine gunner.
He survived the trenches of WWI in some of the most horrible fighting imaginable. Finally, he took two bullets in the stomach and laid in the battlefield under of pile of corpses for days until a German Shepherd search dog found him. When he returned home, his country of Hungary had been split up and he lost his property, so he emigrated from Hungary to America on a slow boat in steerage and became a U.S. citizen.
It took him two years of riding the train rails and taking odd jobs to save enough money to bring his wife (my Grandma Sokol) to America, also on a slow boat in steerage. He eventually bought a little 2-acre farm with a tiny house and mined coal in West Virginia for decades until black lung finally killed him.
Yes, this is where I got my love of music from
And yet, Grandpa Sokol was always happy, and happy to be working. When he wasn’t cutting hay or tending their one-cow farm, he was playing polkas for us kids on his accordion and chasing us around the yard. But he was cool under pressure, so when we came upon a rattlesnake next to where we were playing he calmly picked up a shovel and cut off its head.
There was no complaining about his life, no regrets about his time in the Great War (on the wrong side, as he would say to us kids). And he had the unique experience of meeting Hitler in the trenches before any of his rise to power in the ’30s. Grandpa would tell us kids if he could have known what Hitler would have become, he would have gunned him down on the spot. But at that time Adolph Hitler was only a messenger courier delivering orders to my grandpa.
Dad Sokol in post-WWII Japan occupation
And my own father (now 92 years old) served in Japan during the post-WWII occupation. In fact, he was stationed there while my mother was pregnant. And in 1954 there were no ultrasound tests, so she didn’t know she was having twins until the day of. So my brother Joe and I were born without my dad even knowing he had twin sons until a letter from my mom reached him in Japan weeks later.
Yet dad never complained about his time in the service, even joining the National Guard for the next 25 years. And while I never knew a lot of what happened to him in Japan, I watched him in action one time in my teens when we came upon a car wreck on a bridge over a little pond by our house. My dad took immediate charge of the situation, sent us kids running up the hill to our house to phone for an ambulance while he held the crash victim’s head up out of the water so he wouldn’t drown until the ambulance arrived. That day I watched dad save someone’s life – which was in stark contrast to his history teacher persona.
Karl’s dad – sunk in a Liberty ship at 17 years of age
Finally, last spring when I was converting my adjunct classes at Shenandoah University to online Zoom meetings, I was complaining to my friend of 40 years, Karl, about how my students were quickly sinking into depression because they couldn’t go places to party and had to stay in their dorm rooms for weeks. So Karl told me about his own father’s time in the Navy.
I had met his dad many times over the years, but I never knew that he had wanted to forge his birth certificate so he could join the Navy after Pearl Harbor, but his mom signed off allowing him to join on his 17th birthday. He then spent weeks working in the engine room of a Liberty ship, which was finally torpedoed and sunk with him barely escaping on a raft. He eventually went on to get married and had four boys, yet I never heard him complain about his time in the service. It was his duty to serve, and he barely made it back alive.
All gave some, some gave all…
And while our current times are a bit rough, we have to put it all into perspective. These three veterans, whom I’ve personally known, all went through horrific wartime experiences that are hard to imagine – as did millions of other veterans from Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and other conflicts around the globe, many of whom never made it home alive. And if you didn’t know it already, Gary Bunzer, our sorely missed RV Doctor, was a Seabee (Naval Construction Battalion) who served during the Vietnam War.
And if you meet a veteran this week, especially one in an RV, make sure you thank him or her for their service and ask about when and where they served. Without their heroic efforts we would probably not be here.
Please add any of your veteran experiences below. I think personal stories are an important part of history that should not be forgotten.
Mike Sokol is an electrical and professional sound expert with 50+ years in the industry. His excellent book RV Electrical Safety is available at Amazon.com. For more info on Mike’s qualifications as an electrical expert, click here.
Email me at mike (at) noshockzone.org with your questions.